Battle of sexes (and toy penguins) in Linux move

A civil servant in the German city of Schwabisch Hall uses gender competitiveness and stuffed penguins to persuade government workers to accept the switch to desktop Linux from Windows.
Written by Graeme Wearden, Contributor on

A German civil servant may have found the secret to getting people to switch to Linux: stuffed penguins and powerful women.

Like other governments worldwide, the council of the small German city of Schwabisch Hall decided to ditch Microsoft software in favor of open source, back in late 2002.

On Wednesday, Horst Brauner, the civil servant responsible for implementing the migration, revealed the tactics used to cure Schwabisch Hall council workers of their reluctance to make the switch to desktop Linux.

Speaking at the Open Source for Local Government conference in London, Brauner explained that some users were afraid the deployment of Linux was part of a secret plan to read everyone's e-mail, record all their keystrokes and monitor their surfing habits.

"I became the most hated person in the municipality, but hey, that's usual," joked Brauner. "So, to people who didn't like it I gave away Linux T-shirts and stuffed penguins."

Other users were upset that they could no longer run the front cover CD-ROMs from their favorite computer magazines at work, or keep their old screensavers. These feelings were assuaged, Brauner says, once it became clear that games did run on Linux and that people could still use their work PC for private use.

Once the migration was complete, though, there were concerns that the open-source software would be harder to use than Windows. Again, Schwabisch Hall had a solution.

"We put the chairwoman of our workers' council on stage in front of all the municipal workers, and showed her using the new system. After that, we found that no man would say that he couldn't use his PC now that everyone knew a woman could do it," revealed Brauner.

Schwabisch Hall was the first German city to abandon Windows in favor of open source. It was soon followed by Munich, and on Tuesday, the German Federal Finance Office signed up with Linux--a deal thought to be one of the largest Linux-based mainframe deployments in Europe.

The Schwabisch Hall information technology infrastructure is spread across 11 sites in the city. The city migrated all its more than 400 workstations, of which 325 are networked across a high-speed fiber-optic network owned by the city council.

There were several motives behind Schwabisch Hall's pioneering move to Linux. One factor was cost, after the IT budget was dramatically cut between 2001 and 2002. Another was a push for better security, while a third was to escape from the treadmill of vendor-driven upgrades.

Debating open source
Tuesday's conference was attended by a swath of local council IT staff. Some appeared to be keen on Linux, while others were more skeptical about the idea of open source.

Tim Dawes, director of Ninevah Consulting--which organized the conference--urged delegates to explore the possibilities presented by Linux. He said that with big IT firms such as IBM backing Linux, the operating system shouldn't be seen as a tool only for geeks, and that the technical challenge posed in migrating to and supporting Linux shouldn't be beyond an IT professional.

Dawes also pointed out that users might be cross that their work computer ran Linux if their home PC was still on Windows, but insisted that this was a boon to network security.

"Your next network infection could be coming from their home PC," Dawes said.

Brauner agrees that Linux's security is a massive benefit to system administrators.

"Private screensavers and computer magazine CDs might not work in Linux, but on the other hand the MyDoom virus doesn't either," Brauner told the conference.

Tuesday, Microsoft issued a patch for a vulnerability in its Windows software that could be used to unleash a virus even more devastating than MyDoom. This patch should be installed by anyone running Windows NT, Windows 2000, Windows XP or Windows Server 2003.

Graeme Wearden of ZDNet UK reported from London.

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